by request: pather panchali (satyajit ray, 1955)

Phil Dellio had the Apu Trilogy at #15 when we did our top 50 fave movies a few years back, so I’m only fulfilling 1/3 of the request so far. I’m surprised I had never seen these movies before, but I am woefully behind on Ray, having only seen Charulata in the early 70s and The Music Room more recently. The Apu Trilogy has been restored, so I was able to record all three films, and the other two will follow eventually.

Ray was encouraged by Jean Renoir when the latter was in India making The River, and you can see some of Renoir’s feel for the basic humanity of his characters in Pather Panchali. There is so much to admire about this film, but the treatment of the characters might be the best part, for Ray doesn’t judge them for their poverty. He used a lot of non-professional actors ... hell, he was a non-professional, the first day he spent making a movie was the first day of this film. This was reportedly also true for Subrata Mitra, the photographer-turned-cinematographer. Honestly, there were so many road blocks to the making of Pather Panchali that it’s hard to believe all of them are true. Perhaps my favorite (this comes from the IMDB): it took some years to complete the film, which features a young boy (Apu), and young girl (his sister), and a very old woman (the village “Auntie”). Ray said all three were part of the miraculous completion of the film: the young boy’s voice did not break, the young girl didn’t grow up, and the old woman didn’t die.

About that old woman. She is the damnedest thing. She was played by Chunibala Devi, who was born in 1872 and had been in a few films in the 1930s. While she lived through the filming, she died before the movie’s release. She is so old, and it’s clearly not a trick of makeup ... Devi is stooped over into a hunchback, she is missing most of her teeth (and her hair), she can barely walk. But she’s a sharp cookie (not just the character, but Devi, who impressed Ray when they first met). As Phil wrote, “you will literally never encounter anyone else remotely like her in any other film.”

The film looks beautiful. I don’t think it romanticizes poverty, but we are aware of the pleasures of the land. Ray takes his time, both as a storyteller and in the film making as a whole ... there are long takes that he is content to let run. It is a peaceful film, except when the realities of the characters’ poverty hit home.

It is easy to see why Pather Panchali is so highly regarded, and I will watch the other two movies in the trilogy. But ultimately, for me, it falls into the category of “admired more than loved”. Maybe the languid pace gave me too much time to think, but I wasn’t as drawn in emotionally as I expected. It’s importance in Indian and World cinema is clear, and I have no problem recommending it. I just wish I had felt more sucked into its pleasures. #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

what i watched last week

Killers Three (Bruce Kessler, 1968). This movie sucks, but it makes for great post-viewing trivia. The most obvious item is that the movie was produced for American International by Dick Clark, who also was one of the people who came up with the story, and who also co-starred as one of the Three. It was directed by Bruce Kessler, who may be the only person in history to get the following description on Wikipedia: “Bruce Kessler … is an American racing driver and film and television director.” He spoke with James Dean on the day of Dean’s death. And, as if the Formula One racing wasn’t enough, Wikipedia also tells us “Kessler was also a world class skeet and trap shooter.” The male lead was Robert Walker, Jr., son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones (he once said, “I would like to develop as an actor in obscurity.”) The female lead was Diane Varsi, who earlier that year had been so charming in Wild in the Streets. Varsi only appeared in eleven movies, starting with Peyton Place, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She took eight years off from 1959-67, and made her last movie, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, fifteen years before her death. But that’s not all! There is a country music soundtrack (it takes place in North Carolina in the late-40s and tells the story of bootlegging, among other things). At one point, there’s a party at which Bonnie Owens (ex-wife of Buck Owens and, at that time, wife of Merle Haggard) performs. Oh, and speaking of Hag, he has a small part as Diane Varsi’s brother. And he sings. His songs are the ones that fill the soundtrack, and it’s very unfortunate, because those songs consist entirely of Hag re-telling the events of the movie up to that point (“They drove all day and night, California seemed so far. Now the law is closing in, and they’re looking for their car”). The theme song is “Mama Tried”, which had been released earlier that year. The movie is a rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde, minus the artfulness of Arthur Penn, the excellence of the screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, the editing greatness of Dede Allen, the cinematography of Burnett Guffey, the wonderful acting by Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and the rest (Dick Clark is no Michael J. Pollard), and the beguiling charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012). Practically everything goes right in this one. Spielberg mostly avoids the overwrought heart-tugging that affects even some of his best movies. The script by Tony Kushner is a marvel that manages to simultaneously walk the viewer through complex political machinations and offer vibrant characters (who are acted by a retinue of actors who must have been overjoyed to have such fine material). The movie has the look of the mid-19th century (as if I knew what that is), which I’m guessing is largely the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. And Daniel Day-Lewis does something I admit I didn’t expect. I think of Day-Lewis as a showy actor in the Meryl Streep mode, but he buries himself inside Lincoln, and fulfills the cliché of forgetting it’s an actor and believing you are watching the actual Lincoln. In truth, I was surprised by a lot of things in this movie, mostly because as usual, I studiously avoided knowing much about it in advance. It’s not an action picture, it’s not a hagiography … no, it’s a political thriller, something like House of Cards only a lot better. Lincoln resorts to political scheming when necessary to achieve his goals, yet this doesn’t make him less appealing … in fact, it makes him seem more real, which is a hard thing to do with a character so embedded in the public mind. #163 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. A conversation I had with a friend reminded me that while all of the above is true, the film is successful in part because it narrows its focus by excluding social movements that mattered to the story. It also mostly excluded black people.

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). A movie that encapsulates most of what defines De Palma for both his champions and his detractors. His command of the medium is exquisite, his ability to extract a desired response from the audience is superb. And his misogyny … well, here it is, there’s no use denying it. Nancy Allen’s character is a charmingly dim blonde … Allen makes the most of the part, she’s very good, and it’s not her fault that her then-husband De Palma never really lets her climb out of her dimness. I like this movie a lot, but I feel kinda dirty about it. #856 on the TSPDT top 1000.

oscar run xiii: water (deepa mehta, 2005)

You want diversity? Water is a film set in India, directed by a woman (herself born in India but a resident of Canada for several decades), filmed in Sri Lanka because of problems with earlier attempts to film in India, starring a Canadian actress of Indian and Polish descent and an Indian actor whose father was Catholic and mother Iranian. A key part of an 8–year-old girl is played by a Sri Lankan actress who speaks neither Hindi nor English. And Gandhi shows up, with one actor playing the great man and another providing his voice. Now it is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar … submitted by Canada, as India apparently wants nothing to do with it.

And I’ve only hinted as some of the many stories told about the production, tales which threaten to overwhelm the actual movie. It’s a good one, beautifully shot, with some excellent acting and an interesting, even important, premise, that widows in Hindu culture are disdained. There’s a romantic subplot which gets in the way … the actors involved are absolutely gorgeous, and the woman, Lisa Ray, can even act, but she’s a bit too glammed up for the setting. Still, director Deepa Mehta does what she sets out to do, the plot turns surprising just when you think you’ve figured it out, and the darkness of much of the movie is tempered by hope.

The behind-the-scenes drama is not entirely verifiable. Some of it is clearly true, most importantly that when Mehta first tried to make the movie in India in 2000, her sets were burned down by irate fundamentalists. Some of it is arguable … there was a plagiarism lawsuit, settled out of court so no one really knows the story, and Wikipedia lists all sorts of oddball stuff involving dead parrots and the like (“citation needed” perhaps tells you everything you need to know about those rumors).

The best thing about Water is Seema Biswas as a widow who does what she can to help others while examining her religious convictions. Not only is Biswas terrific in the movie, she comes with baggage of the positive kind: she played the title character in the hard-to-recommend, excruciatingly intense Bandit Queen, a movie with controversies of its own. Being only a dabbler in Indian film, I hadn’t seen Biswas in anything since her startling debut, and didn’t even recognize her at first, with her cropped hair (and the addition of ten+ years, of course). Based on the two movies I’ve seen her in, I think she’s my new favorite actress.